The New Year’s Speech: Show Me the Money!

January 2, 2013 7:00 AM

We confess to being worn down. Is it really worth it to read the New Year’s Editorial and try to figure out what secret messages it may hold? We tried last year, and found some relationship between food shortages and the emphasis placed on agriculture in the editorials over the last decade. But we also noted that the rhetorical emphasis did not appear to translate into anything substantive.

This year, the KCNA did not—as of press time—post an editorial. Rather, Kim Jong Un gave a New Year Address (here) The address included the paean to the elders, a commitment to juche and songun and led, not surprisingly, with the satellite/missile launch. Indeed, the space launch became the kind of overarching metaphor for the tasks of the new year.

The basic economic message seems to be “do everything,” which is really equivalent to not prioritizing anything at all. But it is possibly worse than that. The slogan for the year is “Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space!” This approach suggests that the regime’s thinking is still locked into the idea of leapfrogging, “100 day battles,” and monumentalism; indeed, the first reference to economics in the speech is to “Juche-oriented and modern factories and enterprises and reconstructed major production bases in key industrial sectors on the basis of advanced science and technology...”

If there is any logic to the speech—a big assumption—it sounds like heavy industry comes first. (“By adopting decisive steps to shore up the vanguard sectors of the national economy and the sectors of basic industries, we should develop coal-mining, electric-power and metallurgical industries and rail transport on a preferential basis and provide a firm springboard for the building of an economic giant.”) This is disheartening to say the least, but who knows? In the next section, the speech says the country should concentrate on people's livelihoods, agriculture and light industry “too,” and also with the increasing emphasis seen in recent speeches on “science and technology” as a panacea.

There is no hidden message with respect to reform that we could find. Changes in economic management will seek to improve the existing socialist system. There is not a hint of opening on the external sector.

On the foreign policy front, again, the missile launch is the metaphor (“The sector of defence industry should develop in larger numbers sophisticated military hardware of our own style that can contribute to implementing the Party's military strategy, thereby fulfilling its mission as the arsenal of the powerful revolutionary army of Mt. Paektu.”) The message if anything is negative. Rather than launching, fulfilling the filial obligation to Kim Jong Il’s last wishes and moving on, the success could spur more investment in military hardware.

A long-standing feature of editorials with respect to North-South relations is to hold up the two North-South summits as crowning achievements. This year, the language was even more florid than usual (“All the Korean compatriots in the north, south and abroad should launch a dynamic struggle to carry out to the letter the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration, great reunification programmes common to the nation in the new century and milestones for peace and prosperity.”) Perhaps the regime is hoping that the Park administration will seek to revive these commitments, but it is difficult to see that occurring absent progress on the nuclear issue.

The speech made no reference to the country’s nuclear capability, and this could be the one small positive we can eke out: better to be silent than to brandish them. The speech also closed with a mildly hopeful note (“By holding fast to the ideals of independence, peace and friendship, we will, in the future, too, strive to develop relations of friendship and cooperation with the countries that are friendly to our country out of their respect for its sovereignty, and safeguard regional peace and stability and make the whole world independent [sic].” If this is a bid for reciprocity, it should be explored. But what is on the table?

With respect to both economics and foreign policy, our slogan comes from Jerry McGuire: “show us the money.”


Chris Green

Fantastic stuff, and a great antidote to the myopic insanity that has been triggered in the mass media by Kim's fluffy rhetoric.


Agreed, there's a lot of rubbish in there as we can only expect. But this part might also be worth a look:
"We should hold fast to the socialist economic system of our own style, steadily improve and perfect the methods of economic management on the principle of encouraging the working masses to fulfill their responsibility and role befitting the masters of production, and generalize on an extensive scale the good experiences gained at several units.” The Korean for that last part reads "... 여러 단위에서 창조된 좋은 경험들을 널리 일반화하도록 하여야 하겠습니다" which could be translated as "... we must generalize widely those good experiences created at several units." He's not come out and said that socialism is rubbish and he's not even talked about different coloured cats, but we couldn't realistically expect anything like that could we. He's got to say the first part about maintaining "our style socialist economic system." It's the part after which is potentially interesting. If we take a favourable understanding of this line it suggests at least a bit of pragmatism in allowing some level of experimentation or decentralization in economic management methods leading to variation in practice at a local level and therefore resulting in some "good experiences" that can be replicated more widely. There's a lot of ifs as always, and it still points to a painfully slow progress at best, but you could argue that if we're looking for signs of reform potential at this stage we should still realistically be looking for stated willingness for variation/experimentation in economic management methods and scaling up of favourable results rather than any kind of 'big bang' reforms.


SP: We appreciate the comment about possible experimentation; let's hope. And we also endorse strongly the observation that the leadership is not going to call anything that they do "reform": on this point, see two earlier posts at: However, we were disappointed by the sequence of "priorities"--beginning as frequently with heavy industry--and above all the post-missile blush of success that "science and technology" will provide the way forward. This illusion is costly in the absence of changes, however marginal, of incentives. To date, we have seen surprisingly little evidence in reports coming out of the country that much is in train. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. SH


The money will probably come from the South
if KJU & PKH can meet and warm up as a
new brother and sister.

Shirley Lee

Nice piece. In Jang Jin-sung's words, "These are uninspired words. Kim Jong-un’s vacuous non-statement[s] reveal(s) that economic policy is not a pressing concern for him at present"and "A blank space in policy equals a blank space in power."


My colleague Marc Noland picked this up from Deutsche Welle; Ruediger Frank, who posts periodically at SAIS' 38NOrth, had an earful for US press coverage of the speech: "North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un first surprised the world with a televised new year speech and then spoke of "radical change." But North Korean expert Rüdiger Frank warns of reading too much into the message. Frank said a 10-second internet search yielded an article published in 2011 in which Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong II, demanded a "radical change in improving people's living standards." On December 8, 2012, the communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmum wrote, "What North and South Korea need is not any saber-rattling but rather dialog and cooperation to improve relations," Frank also noted, concluding, “So against this background, Kim Jong Un's statements aren't anything new and certainly represent no breakthrough. In response to a question on Western media coverage speaking of a “new era”, Frank responded, “I have to admit, with all due respect, that this is a sorry example of Western news reporting. North Korean experts refer to it as the ‘Columbus effect.’ The term applies to people - I'm insinuating now - who read a prepared North Korean speech for the first time and then interpret it in the context of how North Korea is typically viewed. If you want to have a solid understanding of such speeches, you need to regularly read government statements. Then you'll know what is really new and what isn't. I think the Western media has really seen better days than the one on which it touted this speech as a major breakthrough.” (Deutsche Welle)


Evans Revere's thoughtful take on the speech at Brookings below. A detail we forgot to mention: that the speech was delivered at Party headquarters.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff